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Respectability and the Wild Beasts of the Philosophical Desert: The Heart of James's Varieties
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17.1 (2003) 1-13

This commentary was suggested to me in part by a colleague's remark that it would be nice if we could make William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience "respectable." The implication was that though there was something redeemable about the book, it somehow wasn't philosophically or scientifically proper. The remark awakened me to—or at least reminded me of—the fact that this has been a traditional take on James's text. As Julius Bixler points out, ridicule began soon after the book was published: "The Varieties of Religious Experience, appearing at about the same time as Ernest Thompson Seton's book of animal stories, was soon nicknamed 'Wild Religions I Have Known'" (1926, 1). My awakening to this attitude—a prevalent if not a pervasive one among contemporary intellectuals—led me to consider that it would be better, and crucially important to James himself, to keep James "unrespectable." James may have been a renegade and anti-professional philosopher, but he knew what he was doing.

I begin my assessment of Varieties by identifying myself with one of James's self-referential remarks: "I have no real mystical experience of my own, but just enough of the germ of mysticism to recognize the region from which their voice comes when I hear it" (Perry 1935, 330). Thus, like James, I write as an inquiring but sympathetic outsider. But James knew that being a sympathizer was hardly more respectable than admitting to having a religious experience. Indeed, he was well aware that many who had not had religious experiences were not sympathetic, and he worried about the effects of their blindness to religious experience:

The first thing to keep in mind (especially if we ourselves belong to the clerico-academic-scientific type, the officially and conventionally "correct" type, "the deadly respectable" type, for which to ignore others is a besetting temptation) is that nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, merely because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves. (1961, 100-101)

James was well attuned to the dismissive attitude of "the deadly respectable" academics who find more comfort in denying the possibilities of religious experience than in investigating its actuality. His aim was to write, in a non-dismissive way, about the human significance of religious experience.

The heart of James's unrespectability is located in his radical empirical attitude, the attitude he first identified in "The Will to Believe" and which he considered the groundwork of his own pragmatism. James's empirical attitude was doubly radical. First, it was willing to examine and take seriously all aspects of human experiences. Most notably, James pointed to the fact that relations are experienced no less than particular things or relata. Moreover, a radical empiricism investigates all experiences, the marginal and extreme as well as the ordinary. In Varieties he suggested that religious experiences are as common as many other experiences we consider "normal," and therefore should be given a fair hearing. The second side of the radical attitude involved the method of inquiry. James was willing to use any form of inquiry that yielded insight or knowledge concerning experience. He did not limit himself to (though he certainly did not exclude) the tools of traditional positivistic science—the measurement of nominalistic, and often arbitrarily designated, things and events. James's scientific method included a wide range of investigatory means: standard verification, sympathetic apprehension, biographical description, valuation, and direct description, which we might now call, somewhat loosely, phenomenology (see Wilshire 1979). He believed the scope of traditional science was far too limited to capture the range of human experience. In the conclusion to A Pluralistic Universe, in addressing the central questions of human existence, James argued for his inclusive method:

it is high time for the basic discussion in these questions to be broadened and thickened up. It is for that that I have brought in Fechner [speculative cosmology] and Bergson [intuition], and descriptive psychology and religious experiences, and have ventured even to hint at psychical research and other wild beasts of the philosophical desert. (1912, 330)

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